Simple Wall Shelf

Shaker storage with modern style

We humans have a knack for collecting knickknacks and bric-a-brac as we travel through life. Some of these curios need to be protected behind glass or closed in a box for only occasional viewing, while others beg for your eyes full-time. Many of these items may be smaller and more delicate than others and therefore require an equally delicate display to show them off. That’s where this small wall shelf comes in. 
During a recent foyer facelift, my wife and I wanted such a shelf. To make it, I drew inspiration from similar Shaker shelves but added contemporary elements to better fit our aesthetic. As for the materials, I chose ash for its light tone and strength. 
The piece is rather small, only 15" wide and two feet high, and the deepest shelf is 6" deep. An open top and bottom give it an airy feel, and tapered sides reduce bulk. The sides are further shaped with scallops and bevels that add visual interest without overpowering the items it holds. Made from 5/8"- and 1/2"-thick stock, the piece is lightweight, but the strong ash wood and sturdy sliding dovetail joinery keep your keepsakes safe. 

The finished shelf will hold your tiny treasures and building it will hold a few fun techniques. You’ll gang-cut the sides and learn a unique method for cutting sliding dovetails. To mount the piece, you’ll route keyhole slots using a simple jig you can use again on any project in need of hanging. Let’s get started. 

Dainty but durable

Subtle and graceful like the mementos it will hold, the shelf has an open design and is made of light-toned ash. Tall, slender sides start with a bevel and swoop into large radii scooped from the top. They then lightly draw the eye down, tapering from narrow to wide before another scoop and bevel settles the bottom against the wall. Crossgrain dovetail slots sawn and routed into the inside faces of the sides hold shelves of graduating widths via strong dovetailed tenons. 

Order of Work

  • Dado and shape sides
  • Tenon shelves
  • Assemble and finish
  • Rout keyholes and hang


Visit onlineEXTRAS for a cut list and a full-size pattern of the side profile. While you’re at it, check out a tip for routing keyhole slots and a free article on featherboards. 

Saw and rout dadoes in the sides

Mill your stock to the exact thickness and length for all parts but leave everything a little wide and mill an extra shelf for joinery setup. Layout the dado locations on one side piece. Set up your table saw with a dado stack to make a 1/4" wide, 3/16" deep cut. Make and attach a sacrificial fence to your miter gauge. Set a stop using the layout lines on one side piece, and saw the same dado in both sides. Repeat the process and continue until all six slots are sawn. 

Chuck a 14° dovetail bit in your router table and set the height to 5/16". Use the sawn dadoes to align the piece with the bit, and rout the crossgrain dovetails as shown. Leave the bit in place for routing the shelves’ tenons.

Layout lines. After marking the dado location (see Side Pattern, above) on the face of one side, transfer the lines to both edges. 

Saw the dadoes. With the rear edge of the side piece against the miter gauge, saw the dado in one pass and then cut the same dado in the other side piece, but with the front edge against the miter gauge fence.

Dovetail dado. Clamp the two side pieces together back edge to back edge and to a shop-made T-square that will guide the sides along the front edge of the table.

Taper and shape the sides together

Double-face tape the inside faces of the sides to each other, aligning their rear edges. Download the side pattern or use the drawing (left) to draw the shape on one face. Or make a template for future shelves and transfer the shape to the outside face of the assembly. 

Set the assembly on a slightly larger piece of 3/4" plywood, and align the taper with the table saw blade. Affix a fence against the assembly’s rear edge and attach toggle clamps. 

Use this simple tapering jig to saw the taper as shown. Save the offcuts for later. Bandsaw and sand the assembly to shape. When done shaping, pull the sides apart and clean up any tape residue using denatured alcohol.

Taper the sides. Secure the taped-together side pieces to a simple sled, and push the jig against the rip fence and through the blade to saw the taper.
Bandsaw to shape. Using a blade stout enough to cut through the assembly but small enough to cut out the scoops in the sides, (I used 1⁄2", 6 TPI) cut just outside your traced lines. 

Sand to the line. With the sides still together, use a sanding drum (see Buyer’s Guide click here to download PDF) at the drill press to finish shaping.

Rout dovetailed tenons on the shelves

Without changing the bit’s height, cut a dovetail-shaped slot through a tall auxiliary fence. Then attach the auxiliary fence to the router table’s fence and position it so the bit is buried approximately halfway into the slot. Adjust the fence position, making test cuts on the end of the extra shelf to fine tune the fit. The tall fence will help steady the shelves as you run them on end past the bit. Each dovetail tenon requires two cuts, rotating the piece in between. Use a featherboard to apply consistent pressure as you push the pieces through the cuts with a backerboard to add stability and prevent tearout. Rout each end of all three shelves as shown.

Tap in the shelves

Sand all the parts. Stand one side up on its back edge, gripping the ends with handscrews to balance it. Tap in the shelves as shown. Then tap the second side into place, protecting its front edge with a cutoff from tapering. Make sure the back edges are flush and the assembly is square before clamping from side to side to fully seat the joints. Clean up any squeezeout. Once the glue dries, bevel the fronts of the shelves with a hand plane to make them flush with the sides. 

Tap in the shelves. After spreading glue in the dadoes and on the shelves’ tenons, tap in the shelves one at a time using a mallet. A caul protects the piece from marring. 

Flush the shelves. Handplane the shelves’ front edge flush with the sides. Work from the outside in to avoid tearing out this sides’ face grain.

Routing keyhole slots 

The most effective way to hang a cabinet such as this is with keyhole hanger slots. To make the slots, you’ll need a plunge router, a special keyhole bit (see Buyer’s Guide, click here to download PDF), and a shop-made jig like the one shown here and in onlineEXTRAS. It’s easy to make and can be used on a wide number of projects for future keyhole slots. Mark the hole locations on the rear edges of the sides and align the jig with the marks. Clamp the jig to the shelf secured to your bench and rout the slots in turn. 

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